Astoria Custom Homes
Spectacular architecture, classy, elegant interior design, decades of hands-on experience and unparalleled customer service have each served as fundamental cornerstones that have catapulted Calgary-based Astoria Custom Homes to tremendous success during its 14 years in serving the public.
Launched in 2001, Astoria is an award-winning, full-service company that converts dreams to reality for many new homebuyers, providing customers with outstanding design services, cutting-edge materials and products, excellent quality, sustainable construction and relationship-building that proceeds well beyond the duration of any given project.
The Canadian Business Journal recently had an opportunity to speak with proprietors Jim Stinson and Lisa Stinson. The decision to form their own company was incentivized by Jim’s incredibly successful career. A common theme had emerged whereby Jim would work his way to the very top of the corporate ladder, generating enormous prosperity and revenue for his owners, but could go no further. It was about 15 years ago when he seriously began thinking of branching out on his own in order to earn more of a reward for his expertise while at the same time providing the opportunity to be his own boss and ultimate decision maker.
As Jim Stinson recalls, “it wasn’t a peak or valley in terms of housing builds, but simply felt like a good time to make that move,” on the decision to form the company. With a background in technical drawing and woodworking, it was always his dream to be a carpenter and build beautiful homes. As President and COO Jim executes the design and operations of construction, focusing on quality, craftsmanship building with pride and passion.
“When Jim and I made that decision I decided to collaborate on the new Astoria Custom Homes, I left the oil and gas business and now execute the sales, marketing, IT and finance side of the business, focusing on value and redefining the homebuilding experience,” says Lisa.
The main part of the business consists of designing and building wonderfully unique customized homes and in essence making people’s dreams come true. Several years after opening Astoria Custom Homes the Stinsons introduced another division – Astoria Renovations – to properly service the interior of the business, if you will. The participating partners have nine decades of combined experience and usually take on about 12 substantial renovation projects per year.
First and foremost, high-end custom homes can only be constructed in certain geographic areas due to land lot size restrictions. As one would expect, a lack of sufficient space typically becomes more prevalent as one moves closer towards the core of any city. While there are instances when enough land is available, the more likely scenario is building a larger custom home a bit more towards the outskirts of town or in a rural, country setting, if that is the preference.
Two current major projects at Astoria Custom Homes are at Watermark in Bearspaw, northwest of Calgary along the Bow River east of Cochrane, and Artesia at Heritage Pointe, which is south of the city and north of Okotoks. Both locations are outside the city’s boundary limits, but they do have many of the featured amenities available within the core.
Artesia has wonderful estate lots, including open spaces, and a community centre designed to promote family activities and participation.
Watermark is close to nature, while providing all the benefits of living near an urban centre with fully serviced lots ranging in size from one quarter to over one acre. But farther out into the country the city amenities are often not available. It’s in those types of rural settings where Astoria Custom Homes have in-house expertise that often cannot be found in other homebuilding companies.
The Building Process
The Astoria team sifts through each and every pertinent document with a fine-tooth comb to ensure every aspect of the build is totally covered off. As a critical first step in the process, Jim and two of his senior employees meet with the customer in the Astoria Custom Homes boardroom for what typically takes anywhere from four to eight hours. At the end of that initial meeting Jim and his executives ensure the customer completely understands what is and is not being done. This type of efficient pre-planning avoids misunderstandings and upset customers at future points in the process. That extra dedication is almost unheard of, and is certainly one of the key factors that make Astoria Custom Homes stand out from the crowd.
In fact, such a level of interaction is so out of the ordinary that some competitors have asked Jim and Lisa how Astoria Custom Homes can afford to spend an entire day with several of its top employees undertaking these types of exercises with customers. The bottom line is the Stinsons say it actually saves time taking care of everything all at once from the very start.
“One of the main reasons for having that initial four-to-eight hour meeting is to ensure we understand the vision of the customer. Not all the customers understand the blueprints and other documents so it’s a good time for us to sit down and review anything that may not be clear to them. That way, by the time we are ready to start building their home, there is perfect clarity; we understand what the vision is for their home and then we’re fully prepared to build their dream home,” notes Lisa.
“Also, can you imagine meeting someone for the first time when you’re mad at them versus having been in a room with them for four to eight hours?” questions Jim. With the latter approach, it allows the team at Astoria to learn about their clients, share a few laughs and get a much better feel for what the client wants based on their in-depth discussions. Jim perhaps sums it up best with this simple yet very poignant remark.
“You’ve got to be able to take the time to listen to the customer.”
Although each home project is inherently different with its own set of unique intangibles throughout the building process, the typical length of time from permit acquisition to the home’s completion averages about 10 months. However, any additional modifications during the build will of course add extra time to the project’s timeline.
“If you add 100 change orders from our customer, that could add one or two months to the job,” notes Jim. “People laugh at 100, but our record at Astoria is 102 change orders after job starts. That’s two inches of solid reading in a binder.”
Astoria Custom Homes provides a 10-year structural warranty guarantee to all of its finished homes to back up their quality workmanship. That gesture goes a long way in putting customers’ minds at ease.
For the past five years Jim Stinson has also served on the Calgary Home Builders’ Association (CHBA) board. The CHBA represents single- and multi-family builders, renovators, land developers, trades, suppliers, and professional companies involved in the residential construction industry. The association is bound by a code of ethics and led by an experienced group of board of directors, volunteers who lend their expertise.
“Jim is very knowledgable in residential construciton and widely respected in the industry,” notes Lisa.
A significant advantage for Astoria Custom Homes is the ability to provide specialized expertise in Acreage Design and Construction, which deals specifically with the knowledge and experience to build custom country homes. Building such homes requires an entirely unique level of expertise, which quite frankly is extremely rare. Some of the fundamental core competencies necessary to construct a quality home in the country include having an extensive knowledge about land analysis, septic systems, roads, water management and electrical requirements. The decision by Astoria Custom Homes to put a much greater emphasis on acreage properties came about at the end of 2013 when Jim and Lisa Stinson decided to buy out their former business partner.
“Once we took full reign of the company back we went back to our roots, which is acreage development. When you build a house on an acreage you have to understand how a country home functions with septic systems, wells and pressure tanks, grades, roads, etc., etc. You’ve got to be experienced on that so the whole package comes together,” notes Jim.
A desire to live in a more intimate setting within the confines of a natural environment leaves many people considering the purchase of acreage property. But it’s entirely possible they may have an idealized vision of rural life that may not always accurately reflect reality. It’s absolutely imperative for people to be properly educated on the requirements of country living and how it is so much different than being connected directly to city services.
“A lot of people definitely like the idea of being out in the country but there is a lot of education that goes into ensuring a customer is prepared for the differences they will encounter,” says Lisa.
Astoria Custom Homes will build a dream home on your existing property, or work together with you to find the best location. The Stinsons say about 50% of the people who seek their professional services have already purchased land they’d like to develop, while the other 50% walk in looking to buy acreage. Jim always recommends to clients, or potential clients, that it’s important to add stipulations before signing off on any land contract, one of which is the allowance of bringing out a qualified professional builder to the site prior to the closing of any land deal. Both Jim and Lisa have witnessed the hazards of overzealous people wanting to build farther out in the country without doing their due diligence.
Customers could save themselves a lot of time and money by first consulting experts such as the people at Astoria.
“I go out personally myself and view a lot of acreages with customers before they buy them, and I will tell them what the pluses and minuses are,” he reveals. “Some people go out in the country and look at a completely flat table-top lot and they think they can put a walk-out basement on there. Another may gush at the water they will have around their home, but that too poses a problem because we can’t put a normal septic system in, but rather we’ll have to put in what we call a septic mound, which is above the ground covered in dirt, and costs a lot more.”
During his time in the business, Jim Stinson has educated not just young people but those in their 40s and 50s – sometimes people who have already bought their lot but it turns out it isn’t conducive to their expectations. Jim is always candid and will tell them to re-sell it and instead purchase a lot that better suits their requirements. Another aspect that is often overlooked is that a number of people wrongly assume amenities such as electricity and gas are readily available on rural properties, but that quite simply isn’t the case.
“To hook up gas in the city costs about $1,800 but in the country it can start at $11,700,” remarks Jim. “Just on that alone you need an extra $10,000.”
The culture of Astoria embraces an unwavering commitment to collaboration, innovation, integrity and professionalism. “We believe a positive and supportive work environment brings out the best in a team and enables every member to succeed and contribute to the company’s success,” says Lisa.
It’s always buyer beware for you sign on the dotted line. That’s where the professionals at Astoria Custom Homes have the ability to save their customers an incredible amount of heartache.
“Jim and I live on acreage. It’s just so sad to see people put such a huge amount of time and effort in building their dream and not having a company with the proper expertise. Jim has that expertise and has built multiple acreage homes.”
The folks at Astoria Custom Homes have built up a number of outstanding synergistic relationships and in so doing continue to use many of the same vendors and suppliers on a regular basis. Jim Stinson likes to say there are 200 sets of hands that will touch your house from start to finish.
“We don’t change trades very often,” he confirms. “We do reviews once a year. If there’s a problem that develops we’ll call up a senior manager or owner of the company and we’ll have a chat and get things back on line. We’ve had very good relationships with some companies for 20 years.”
“Most of our trades and suppliers have been with us for many years and a few who have been with us from the very beginning. Jim is very particular. He builds every house as if it’s his very own so the expectations in the field are very high. Once you’ve built a strong relationship with a quality trade or supplier then everyone knows what the expectations are. We’re so thankful for our great trades and suppliers who’ve been with us for all of these years and provided the service to us and our company. We’ve gotten to know them all very well. It’s a big plus for our company and we’re very proud to be associated with a terrific group of people.”
In most business sectors, the top enterprises often attract a significant percentage of business through referrals, and it’s no different for Astoria Custom Homes. A healthy culture at Astoria embraces an unwavering commitment to collaboration, innovation, integrity and professionalism.
Going that extra mile not only ensures the current client is happy, but often leads to them recommending those same services to others.
Testimonials written by satisfied customers provide concrete proof about their decision to select Astoria. Here is a small sampling of the type of correspondence often received from homebuyers.
Jim and Lisa, I just had to send you a quick note to tell you we LOVE LOVE LOVE our new home. You have a wonderful team that has made this a great experience. Thank you so much.
This is just a note to say that I’m thrilled and really impressed at the progress with our house. I know you are all working hard behind the scenes as well as the forefront on our behalf. I want you to know how much I appreciate everyone at Astoria for their professionalism and attention to detail as we go through this process. It has not gone unnoticed.
I’ve been able to get away from work a couple of times to meet the guys working on the house. They have been nothing but courteous, friendly and respectful. Wow what a terrific team!… and they really are proud to be working for you.
“We take a great deal of pride in those,” says Lisa. “For someone to take the time to write you a letter to say how happy they are or to invite us to their home after it’s been done is amazing and very important to us.”
The drastic decline in oil prices has made headlines in Alberta and throughout the world, but the ripple effects have not permeated into the higher-end new housing market because, as the old saying goes, people with money always have money, regardless of the overall state of the economy. From that point of view, it’s full-steam ahead with the business.
“We have so much construction going on right now, it’s unbelievable,” says Jim.
“A lot of our customers are not in the oil patch,” states Lisa. “Of course some are, but many are entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and executives from numerous different business backgrounds so the price of oil isn’t as impactful as it might be for someone that is working in a traditional oil and gas setting.”
In building for the future, a colossal mistake often made by corporate executives is expanding too quickly. Bigger is not always better and it’s something the Stinsons keenly keep in mind. They have their feet firmly planted on the ground and will not make any rash decisions that could negatively impact the well-being of such a successful enterprise.
“Between 20 and 25 homes per year is something that we can fully control and I think that is so important. Many companies think they will get bigger and better, but they don’t. Production, service and quality all goes down. I’ve had lots of opportunities in my career to build condos and high-rises, but my motto hasn’t changed: we’re going to do what we do best and stay with that” confirms Jim.
“We are a smaller company,” notes Lisa. “We just don’t have the capacity to take on 30 homes all at once because it wouldn’t allow for Jim and I to be personally involved in every build. We know each and every one of our customers and become friends with a number of them.”
A shared vision of providing a quality home for a good price and customers being able to live in their dream homes is why Jim and Lisa Stinson decided to go into business together.
“We want to stick with that model and have the personal contact,” adds Lisa. “We strive for our customers to be proud to live in an Astoria Custom home, because building dream homes is our passion.”